Tag Archives: British film

Penda’s Fen

Pendas Fen
Penda's Fen

Format: Blu-ray

Part of Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969 – 1989) limited edition 13 disc box-set

Release date: 20 June 2016

Distributor: BFI

Director: Alan Clarke

Writer: David Rudkin

Cast: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson

UK 1974

90 mins

Alan Clarke’s visionary coming-of-age dream still lingers in the minds of 1970s children.

‘You can tell he’s not a nice man because of his television plays.’

So says Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks), possibly the screen’s least hip tortured teenager, referring to a fellow inhabitant of the village of Pinvin, the lefty playwright Arne (Ian Hogg). Stephen is wholly on the side of the Mary Whitehouse-alike figure popping up in the papers in wanting all this 70s permissiveness and insurrection off the air. He prefers Elgar to rock n’ roll, believes in supporting ‘the Aryan national family on its Christian path’ and is, generally, a priggish, self-righteous, eminently slappable sort. But all this is about to change in writer David Rudkin’s utterly unique 1974 Play for Today. The line seems wryly prescient about Alan Clarke, who hadn’t become pegged as the controversial chronicler of Britain’s violent criminal underclass yet – that reputation began in earnest three years later with Scum. Penda’s Fen would appear to be an odd item on his CV:* it’s rural rather than urban, mystical and elliptical rather than plain speaking, and is largely concerned with the kind of Worcestershire villagers that Radio 4 makes dramas about, rather than the working class ne’er-do-wells that would come to dominate his later social realist works. And this most definitely goes beyond the bounds of social realism.

For Stephen, military cadet, church organist and son of a parson, starts to have dreams and visions, and dreams that turn to visions, interfering with his certainties and upsetting the status quo. He has dreams of sweaty heaving rugby scrums that it wouldn’t take an advanced Freudian to interpret (underlining the repressed enthusiasm he has for the saucy milkman). He will see an angel on the riverbank and a demon in his bed, cracks growing in the church floor, and an unsettling image of smiling mutilation in the Elysian grounds of a country mansion. He will see an aged Elgar himself during a rainstorm and chat with him about the secret of the Enigma Variations. Even his village’s identity becomes slippery. Is it Pinvin, Pinfin, Pendefen? Could it be Penda’s Fen, burial place of the last pagan king of England? Already an outcast at school for his grating piety he will be subjected to increasing humiliations that the masters ignore or condone. He is not what he thought he was. Certainties of race, sexuality and religion are stripped from him, leading to his climactic acceptance of his new identity during a strange confrontation in the Malvern Hills.

Penda’s Fen is an odd beast, a coming-of-age drama of sorts laced with elements of folk horror, full of psycho-geographical ruminations about the layers of history and endless meanings contained within the English landscape. The camera seeks out the sacred and arcane, the choir sings William Blake. It wouldn’t be a 1970s TV drama without earnest political arguments in the Parish hall. But here conversation also turns to the heresy of Manichaeism and the fact that the word ‘pagan’ originally meant ‘belonging to the village’. Modern music and media are unseen and unheard. Clarke’s treatment of the weirder elements is deft and physical and unfussy, his demon is a dark gargoyle straddling Stephen as he wakes from his wet dream slumber, like Fuseli’s nightmare, winningly sticking around when the light’s turned on. He drops out the sound for the hazy visionary sequence where children queue to get their hands lopped off save for the noise of the chopper hitting home. The appearance of Graham Leaman as Elgar sticks in the memory, in his dotage and wheelchair-bound, a ghost haunted by memory. But Clarke was always good with actors, and there are a fair few striking performances here.

It’s not perfect, a sub-Quatermass strand about a horribly burned youth and secret military bases underground is unceremoniously shelved after a substantial build-up. The pacing is uneven, dragging in the early stages, going bonkers in the latter, with a penchant for dense theological discussions in the cornfields in a decidedly ‘tell, don’t show’ mode. It’s a tying together of disparate elements into an ungraspable whole, and I doubt even its biggest fans would claim to wholly get what Rudkin’s getting at in places, but the mysterious is part of its DNA and part of its charm. It carries a rare emotional heft, aims for the visionary and actually gets there. Stephen’s ‘I am nothing pure!’ speech at its climax is unexpectedly rousing, a rallying cry for an alternative England. You can see why it lit a spark in the likes of the young Grant Morrison.

The fact that there were only three channels meant that the one-off TV plays of the 70s could draw a sizable audience no matter how abstract or intractable they were. Beamed once or twice into millions of homes and then never seen again they would often linger as a series of singular images and ideas long after the title and tale had been forgotten. Penda’s Fen is a perfect example of this, a film with followers who might not know its name but remember gargoyles in bedrooms and burning men on green hillsides. It’s wonderful that it’s finally getting a decent release 40-odd years after it first came into the world, its themes still resonant, a strange and impure child.

Mark Stafford

* Then again, this is the man who gave you Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire, cinema’s only snooker-based horror musical. Which is an odd item on anybody’s CV.

Penda’s Fen screens at Close-Up Film Centre on 26 June 2016. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Close-Up website.

The Ones Below

The Ones Below
The Ones Below

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 March 2016

DVD release date: 4 July 2016

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: David Farr

Writer: David Farr

Cast: Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, Laura Birn, Deborah Findlay

UK 2015

87 mins

Despite a sense of déjàvu and an unconvincing ending, David Farr’s London-set pregnancy chiller conjures up a claustrophobic atmosphere.

With more than a passing nod to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, this contemporary chilling thriller riffs well enough off its contained, two-up, two-down set-up, even if it struggles to convince with its grand reveal.

Kate (Clémence Poésy) lives upstairs with husband Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and is expecting their first child, albeit with some reticence. Brightening her day is her new ground-floor neighbour, Theresa (Laura Birn), a vivacious blonde whose older husband, Jon (David Morrissey), has a brusque manner and an even worse temper. They have been trying for years (seven, to be precise) to conceive. When they are invited for dinner, Jon can barely mask his contempt for a couple that can successfully procreate at the drop of a hat.

Inevitably, the new arrivals prove to be awkward guests, made worse after a tragic accident, which sends them scurrying downstairs back to their renovated flat. Almost immediately, the promise of like-minded neighbours vanishes. Or so it would seem.

Director David Farr, here making the leap from stage to screen, does well handling Kate’s mental deterioration, which convinces as the line separating fantasy from reality becomes increasingly and alarmingly blurred. Poésy’s pale and increasingly drawn complexion, captured effectively by the lensing of Ed Rutherford, makes for unsettling viewing. Moore’s typically solid turn as the hapless husband, seemingly powerless to stop the dramatic denouement of the piece, is also well timed.

Given their positioning in the narrative – and the mysterious goings-on that play out on screen – it’s trickier to take Morrissey and Birn’s characters quite so seriously. Yet the pair both respond to their material in a suitably colourful way, allowing for brief moments of dark humour to waft through proceedings, before matters begin to turn ugly.

And ugly they most certainly are. While Polanski needn’t fret about this young, London-based pretender, The Ones Below succeeds in crafting a tense and claustrophobic environment within which this motley crew of characters can do their worst. That its finale seems almost laughably absurd is soon alleviated upon reflection of what’s just unfolded. Farr’s film, which showed at Toronto as part of the festival’s City to City programme, isn’t likely to rattle any cages, but it might just upset a few light sleepers. Provided you don’t mind a plot hole or two.

Ed Gibbs

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Nina Forever

Nina Forever 1
Nina Forever

Format: DVD, Blu-ray, VOD

Release date: 22 February 2016

Distributor: Studiocanal

Directors: Ben Blaine, Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine, Chris Blaine

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Abigail Hardingham, Cian Barry

UK 2015

98 mins

This original ghost story looks at grief with both humour and poignancy.

The debut feature from Ben and Chris Blaine is a blackly comedic character study that takes its setup from a fairly common circumstance – the prospect of starting a new relationship in the shadow of much-beloved or outstanding former partner. However, while a number of relationships are haunted by the intangible spectre of a previous love, in Nina Forever the problem is a little more substantial, in every respect.

Following the death of his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Outcast) in a car accident, Rob (Cian Barry, Real Playing Game) has quit his PhD, taken a minimum wage job at a supermarket, and even tried a half-hearted attempt at suicide. His tragic story has caught the attention of Holly (Abigail Hardingham), a co-worker and trainee paramedic with a fascination for all things morbid. The pair begin a tentative relationship, but their first attempt at consummation is rudely interrupted when the formerly deceased Nina appears in the bed with them, limbs twisted from the crash and dripping blood. Equally surprised by her sudden return to corporeal existence, she is not impressed by the other girl’s presence. When Rob points out that she’s supposed to be dead, Nina snaps back: ‘That doesn’t mean we’re on a break!’

Despite the fact that Nina reappears whenever they try to have sex, Rob and Holly do their best to maintain their relationship, even trying to bring the ex-ex into a somewhat unorthodox ménage à trois situation that nonetheless fails entirely. Their other attempts, including having sex on Nina’s grave, are equally unsuccessful. Eventually a series of unforeseen events forces Rob and Holly to reassess the situation and the possible reasons behind it.

Even though it presents a number of humorous moments, Nina Forever is actually a serious look at the nature of grief (and to a lesser extent attraction). Rob and Holly might be struggling to deal with Nina’s very real presence, but the dead girl’s parents are no less affected, even though it’s only intangible memories they are trying to process. They’re not even able to move on in the ways Rob is attempting; he can blot out and replace his memories, but that’s simply not an option for Nina’s parents. Ironically their only desire (to have their daughter back with them) has turned into Rob’s nightmare, highlighting the somewhat transitory nature of his grief as compared to theirs, which can never be removed, only accommodated.

However, although they are dealing with serious themes, the Blaines are also careful to balance the more sober elements with humorous situations and witty dialogue, including Nina’s priceless observation that putting white sheets on the bed might not be the best way to go, all things considered. All three primary cast members are solid, but Abigail Hardingham gives a standout performance in a role that could easily have become a fairly archetypal ‘weird girl’. It’s good to see that her career as a paramedic becomes something more than just an extension of her morbid interests, thanks to a key scene that shows she may have a genuine talent for helping people in distress. In all Nina Forever is a confident, original debut that suggests Ben and Chris Blaine may have an interesting career ahead of them.

Jim Harper

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Phibes Triumphant

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The Abominable Dr. Phibes

The Complete Dr. Phibes

Format: Limited edition 2-disc Blu-ray

Release date: 16 June 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Robert Fuest

Cast: Vincent Price

UK/USA 1971-1972

94 mins (Abominable) 89 mins (Rises Again)

Arrow present a handsome Blu-ray set of Robert Fuest’s two campy, art deco black comedies celebrating the sinister machinations of an evil genius played by Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Rather than a mad scientist, Anton Phibes is a doctor of musicology and theology, studies he relies upon when he decides to revenge himself upon the surgical team who failed to save his wife’s life. It’s a slender motivation, but a very thorough revenge, murdering the medicos according to his own interpretation of the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt.

Co-writer and director Robert Fuest was an art director in the early days of commercial television in Britain, graduating to director on early episodes of The Avengers, where he obviously responded to the campy, surreal sense of Englishness. (He also introduced Richard Lester to the music of the Beatles, whom he had made amateur recordings of.) A heavy drinker, rumoured cross-dresser, and a favourite of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Fuest made only a few features, and the last two were heavily compromised, but between Hitchcockian thriller And Soon the Darkness, pop art sci-fi apocalypse The Final Programme, and his two Phibes films, his cult reputation is assured. His first film, comedy Just Like a Woman, is a funny and convincing portrayal of 60s media people, and his version of Wuthering Heights (1970) with Timothy Dalton is actually one of the finest Bront&#235 adaptations.

The first Phibes film inaugurated the mini-sub-genre of themed murder movies continued in Theatre of Blood and Se7en, and is a precursor of the slasher genre: the plot is essentially a string of elaborate killings, with the authorities continually several steps behind, so as not to interfere with the fun. The themed killings are sometimes horrible, sometimes enjoyably ludicrous, but it’s actually the incompetent investigation following Phibes that provides most of the fun.

Price, that inveterate ham, is somewhat muted by the script’s casting him as a man with a prosthetic face and no vocal chords, relying on a gramophone plugged into his throat to communicate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to constrain Price’s mugging… The presence of Joseph Cotten points up the film’s debt to Citizen Kane, joining disparate scenes together with witty links, in which a spoken question is answered by the first image of the following scene. All in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a unique, crazy, and rather personal film, devoted to Fuest’s love of jazz, elaborate art direction and costume design, fruity performance, and naked sadism.

The sequel struggles a bit, lacking the structure of 10 curses, and has to keep inventing excuses to kill people in ridiculously elaborate ways, and shuffling guest stars on and off, but it benefits from Robert Quarry’s faded matinee-idol charm, and a rather intriguing mythological grounding, capitalising on the 20s-30s enthusiasm for Egyptology. Rather than relying on a virtuous hero (ditching Joseph Cotton’s crusty protagonist), the film pulls off a nice trick by opposing Phibes with an equally ruthless villain, while Inspector Trout scurries in their wake, perpetually baffled.

Like the original, it lurches from one gruesome highlight to another, sometimes stumbling, but helped along by grace notes of performance (Terry-Thomas, Beryl Reid) and set design (by Brian Eatwell, consistently ravishing). And Peter Jeffrey, as Trout, accompanied by his truculent, yapping terrier of a boss, John Cater, is a joy, delivering some truly awful joke dialogue with stiff-upper-lipped aplomb.

David Cairns

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Format: DVD

Release date: 25 May 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Guy Pitt

Writer: Matt Pitt

Cast: Alec Newman, Zoë Telford, Jack Shepherd

UK 2013

91 mins

Guy Pitt’s debut feature Greyhawk takes place on a London housing estate. Mal, a blind ex-soldier (the excellent Scottish actor Alec Newman), is playing fetch with his guide dog. On the third throw of the squeaky ball, his dog does not return. An escalating moment of anxiety (‘Anxiety has no upper limit.’ – Roman Polanski). The dog has been stolen. And so the determined man, who’s carrying quite a bit of barely pent-up anger anyway, must venture into the scheme to get his companion back.

The filmmaking is assured, using the frame, and the focus, to give a stylised sense of the limitations of its hero’s perceptions, and there’s some arresting architectural framing, positioning the central location as antagonist. Greyhawk is at its best using the tense dramatic premise, which you can’t help invest in emotionally, as a means of exploring character. As a study of anomie it’s not entirely convincing: it feels less intimately familiar with its story world than something like Attack the Block, even though its intentions are more serious. Some people might even be offended by the suggestion that so many people on one housing estate would be so unsympathetic to a disabled person’s plight. But the combination of an interesting, defiantly un-ingratiating central figure, strong support from Zoë Telford and Jack Shepherd, and a nerve-racking situation, make the movie a compelling experience. – The detective story aspect of Mal’s investigation is cleverly scripted, just barely avoiding too neat a feeling of contrivance, while continually throwing difficulties in his path.

Greyhawk is one of several imaginative British features screening at EIFF (including opening film Hyena), offering encouraging signs of life and the possibility that this year’s Michael Powell Award for best British film might conceivably go to something Powell would have recognised as cinema.

This review is part of our 2014 EIFF coverage.

David Cairns

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The Machine

The Machine
The Machine

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2014

Distributor: Red & Black Films

Director: Caradog W. James

Writer: Caradog W. James

Cast: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz and Denis Lawson

UK 2013

90 mins

British sci-fi film The Machine (2013), written and directed by Caradog W. James, is set during a new Cold War with China. Scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is tasked with finding the most convincing artificial intelligence implant to build super-efficient combat androids for the Ministry of Defence.

The enigmatic replication of human presence via artificial means is a stalwart sci-fi theme. Today, the technology is not so much a vision of the future as a reflection of contemporary research, as robotics genius Hiroshi Ishiguro has shown with his development of his uncanny Geminoids which have a lifelike presence and are designed purely to be used in benign social settings. Compassionate creativity in opposition to the mindless use of this technology in the military sector is at the root of The Machine. McCarthy and his co-researcher Ava (played by Caity Lotz) find that their talents can only be securely and richly funded by defence budgets. Ava is a hyper-intelligent robotics scientist, who, through her sophisticated programming, generates a softly spoken deluxe computer capable of emotional nuances of wonder and contemplation that outshine her clumsy contemporaries. Together they work on a super computer that will function as the brain for an assassin droid to help fight the Chinese.

The Machine is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B) by Anchor Bay on 31 March 2014 .

The film scores on its remote, minimal style. Nicolai Brüel, director of photography, creates some brooding pools of light that shape the mysterious, dark, labyrinthine base, which are remindful of the nuclear genre classic Edge of Darkness (1985), directed by Martin Campbell. There is also an interesting subtext around the voice. McCarthy has been experimenting with ‘rescued’ veterans with brain trauma. They are given implants to restore some of their sensorium. The implant renders them mute but they have evolved to communicate via a covert language that sounds like garbled electronic data generated by transmitted thoughts – a glitch in the hardware that enables them to form a rebellion. Through this, the filmmakers signal that in a not so distant future there will be ‘a new order’ organised via speech disguised as silence.

In all, The Machine is a stylish contender among sci-fi films that explore the inscrutable question of whether artificial consciousness can exist. Its contemporary edge comes from the fact that it highlights the rapid technological development that has taken place. What was once thought of as science fiction is now science fact.

Nicola Woodham

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Weird Adventures

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 June 2013

Distributor: BFI

The Monster of Highgate Ponds

Director:Alberto Cavalcanti

UK 1961, 59 mins

The Boy Who Turned Yellow

Director: Michael Powell

UK 1972, 55 mins

A Hitch in Time

Director: Jan Darnley-Smith

UK 1978, 57 mins

For anyone who spent their childhood in the UK before the 1990s, films produced by the Children’s Film Foundation were a regular feature on kids’ TV; comprising odd, one-off dramas that, when screened amid the hectic modern cartoons of the late 20th century, not to mention gunge-filled game shows and tweenage soaps like Grange Hill, already felt old-fashioned even before the series came to an end in 1985. Perhaps this was due to the not-for-profit basis of the organisation that made them (and government funding via the Eady Levy), or because the company made films specifically for British children (with an assumption of what that audience would enjoy) without pressure from market forces. That said, nostalgia for the range has brought a tear to the eye of many – particularly the generation who grew up in the 1980s and are obsessed with old TV shows and video games – so the 160 films and two dozen serials that the CFF produced have emerged in dribs and drabs over the last few years on DVD.

To rectify this, the BFI have been releasing new themed collections, with three instalments per disc – not particularly generous, considering the 160 available, but better than their former policy of one 45-minute TV show per disc – and Weird Adventures is the third in the range, collecting three sci-fi/fantasy films from the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest, The Monster of Highgate Ponds, has aged the worst of the three. While footage of 1960s London is charming, especially the rarely filmed canals and docks, and the politeness and received pronunciation of the young actors is refreshing, there simply isn’t enough plot to fill the hour-long running time. One scene, for example, where the children encounter circus workers in a pet shop, who state they’re looking for an unusual animal to join their collection, is reasonably entertaining the first time we see it, and forgivable the second, for inattentive young members of the audience who might have nipped to the loo earlier on, but the third iteration of the same scene just seems like lazy, patronising writing.

Direction by Alberto Cavalcanti (Night Mail, 1936 / Went the Day Well?, 1942) is solid, but not quite exciting or lurid enough for a tale about a dinosaur hatching from an egg and taking up residence in the Highgate swimming ponds. Elsewhere, the realisation of the monster via stop-motion animation when young (by Halas and Batchelor, best known for 1954’s Animal Farm), then as a man in a dinosaur suit when full-sized (and pitched halfway between Godzilla, 1955 and Rentaghost, 1976–1984) is pretty good, but the interminable length makes the film a hard slog for modern audiences.

Luckily, the second film in the collection, The Boy Who Turned Yellow, is far more remarkable, not least as the final collaboration by director Michael Powell and writer/producer Emeric Pressburger. A mixture of educational narrative about the sources of power from the National Grid, plus a children’s adventure movie regarding mice lost in the Tower of London, the eponymous description of the lead character’s change in colour creates a heady mix of caper, surrealism and free-form structure that makes the viewer wish Powell and Pressburger had helmed a few more films for the CFF.

Finally, slapstick sci-fi drama A Hitch in Time is probably most memorable for the appearance of former Doctor Who actor Patrick Troughton, playing another eccentric time-machine pilot. However, a terrific antagonist played by TV stalwart Jeff Rawle steals every scene he’s in as a malevolent teacher, with a dozen similar ancestors that a pair of time-travelling kids encounter through the ages. While the direction is somewhat workmanlike due to long-standing CFF director Jan Darnley-Smith being behind the camera, the witty, episodic script by T.E.B. Clarke, writer of Ealing Comedy classics Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), keeps the action going at a steady clip. Although Troughton is ironically underused as the mad professor, his machine anticipates a similar device in Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (2007) and the historical antics almost seem like a dry run for Time Bandits (1981), which was made only three years after this film.

Like many anthologies, Children’s Film Foundation Volume Three: Weird Adventures is a bit of a mixed bag, but these minor works by great British film directors and writers are certainly worth investigating for cineastes with a curiosity about B-movies aimed at a family audience.

Alex Fitch



Format: Cinema

Screening date: 7 July 2012

Venues: Rio, London

Release date: 20 July 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Cornerhouse

Director: Andrew Kötting

UK 2012

93 mins

Perfectly timed for the arrival of the Olympics, an event even the most hardened Londoners are sick to the back teeth of before it has even begun, this collaboration between artist, filmmaker and restless rambler Andrew Kötting and writer, cultural investigator and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair is a match made in heaven. Kindred spirits who both share a physical and spiritual attachment with the South Coast, the pair first met when Sinclair reviewed Kí¶tting’s Gallivant for Sight & Sound and then maintained a correspondence before collaborating, tentatively, on the filmmaker’s cross-channel Offshore.

In many ways a summation of the themes and practices that have acted as signposts in their respective careers, the film, commissioned as part of Abandon Normal Devices, is a travelogue-cum-odyssey of suitably Olympian ambition as the two fearless explorers and a stolen plastic swan pedalo christened ‘Edith’ (named after the ancient English queen Edith Swan-Neck, whose statue can be seen at the Hastings suburb of Bulverhythe, cradling the dying King Harold after the Battle of Hastings) travel Jerome K. Jerome-style on the waterways of south-east England to the riverside fortress that will become East London’s Olympic 2012 site.

Having aborted several attempts to pen a synopsis, here is the filmmaker himself on the kernel of Swandown: ‘For four weeks throughout the months of September and October 2011 Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair pedalled a plastic swan over 160 miles from the seaside in Hastings to Hackney in East London. They drank 84 litres of water, 2 bottles of whisky, 4 bottles of wine and 24 cans of special brew. They got through 8 pairs of sunglasses, a handmade suit, a pair of walking boots and a camper van. Andrew Kötting wore the same clothes throughout. Iain Sinclair was changed regularly. They met all sorts en route, from the hoi polloi to the hoity toity, from the very old to the very young, with the pedalo acting as catalyst and magnet. Sometimes they were accompanied by invited guest pedallers - sage and comics creator Alan Moore, comedian and cultural commentator Stewart Lee, actor Dudley Sutton [who appeared in Kötting’s Emile Zola-inspired second feature This Filthy Earth], neuroscientist Dr Mark Lythgoe and artist Marcia Farquhar.’

A liquid road movie evocative of Gallivant, which Swandown frequently echoes, it also conjures the ghost of Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, playfully referenced via audio excerpts of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. Shots of the two self-confessed ‘codgers’ strenuously dragging their vessel across fields and roads to the next stretch of water add to the Herzogian tone. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another frame of reference. I was also, if a little perversely, reminded of John Huston’s The African Queen. For its creator, the endeavour also acts as a tribute to the acclaimed performer, traveller and conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1975 was lost at sea attempting to cross the Atlantic in a pocket cruiser. ‘Swandown was always meant to be a homage to him and the ridiculousness of his quest,’ comments Kötting.

Jovially described by Sinclair as ‘a blend of Benny Hill, Stan Brakhage and Joseph Beuys’, Kötting adopts the role of athlete, fool and visionary, larking about and cheerfully interacting with the flotsam and jetsam of British life. He is both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The director suffers for his art, contracting trench foot from his waterlogged boots and a nasty leg infection from a dog encountered en route. Sinclair is cast in the role of the cynical, weary, literary, philosophising wordsmith. Will Self in Shooting Stars in essence. The blend is perfect.

During their journey our intrepid, increasingly stiff-legged Marco Polos listen to the ambient echoes of British culture (historical, literary, political and depicted through Super 8 and archive newsreel footage from the South East Film and Video archive as well as a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Ophelia as depicted in Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting) and tune in - like ‘flesh radios’, as Sinclair says, channelling the cultural unconscious - to the secret voices of England today and yesterday. The result is a factual, frolicsome and fun film/text/Dada performance piece that offers an artistically riotous response to the corporate spirit dominating London in Olympics year. As Stewart Lee comments, ‘Iain Sinclair hates the Olympics. He doesn’t think anything should happen in Hackney without his permission’.

The two key points on the Swandown itinerary are its start and end: Hastings (from where ‘Edith’ originates and the actual physical launch point of the trip, a disastrous and inauspicious event hilariously captured on camera) and Hackney, homes to Kötting and Sinclair respectively. ‘The two geographies are intimately connected,’ says Sinclair - ever since a chunk of Hackney’s old artistic-bohemian population moved down to the South Coast, in search of freedom, inspiration and an affordable cost of living. ‘The old Hackney of anarchy and poverty has drifted down towards Hastings, whereas Hackney is now a virtual Wizard of Oz city of supermalls and surveillance. We had the idea of doing an anti-project, against the global corporate entities of the huge projects being done in Hackney in the name of the Olympics.’

Sadly, Sinclair’s commitments force him to abort the voyage before the Olympian Citadel is breached, leaving Kötting to pedal the final leg of the journey alone. The tone of the film becomes ever more melancholy as rural idyll gives way to urbanisation (a river littered with rubbish, frequent shouts of abuse rather than encouragement from passers-by and fellow river-dwellers) and a sporting project ensnared in bureaucracy, security and secrecy. The somewhat downbeat conclusion, however, never for a moment overshadows the project’s impish inquisitiveness and quintessential Englishness. Featuring many of Andrew Kötting’s long-time collaborators, including musician Jem Finer, cinematographer Nick Gordon-Smith and sound recordist Philippe Ciompi, this is an enduring and entertaining male buddy movie the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

The East End Film Festival opens on 3 July and runs until 8 July 2012. For more information please visit the East End Film Festival website. Swandown screens on 7 July at the Rio (London) and is released in the UK on 20 July by Cornerhouse.

Jason Wood

Kill List

Kill List

Format: Cinema

Release date: 2 September 2011

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer

UK 2011

95 mins

Ben Wheatley’s second feature was one of the most eagerly awaited offerings at Film4 FrightFest on the August bank holiday weekend. Wheatley’s debut, Down Terrace, was a festival hit two years ago, and deservedly so. Tightly written, finely observed and darkly humorous, it mixed dysfunctional family drama with criminal elements in a refreshing take on the tired British gangster genre.

Kill List similarly combines gritty realism and crime film, but adds a sinister cult to the mix, not entirely wisely. It begins like a kitchen sink drama about the life of a work-shy hitman, Jay, who has blazing rows with his worried wife Shel and a son to provide for. Over a dinner party, his friend and partner Gal manages to convince him to go back to work. But as they go through their client’s kill list, Jay is shaken by what they discover about their targets and becomes increasingly psychotic, his violent behaviour fuelled by self-righteous moral indignation.

As in Down Terrace, the character study, the observation of family dynamics and male friendship, and the excellent dialogue are utterly compelling. But the introduction of the cult element seems unnecessary and unoriginal and does not quite blend with the rest of the story. It is never explained fully, and although mystery and ambiguity are entirely desirable in a film, it is not evocative enough to fire up the imagination. Despite this and an ending that feels tacked on, Kill List is thoroughly engaging for most of its running time and Ben Wheatley is clearly a talent to watch.

Virginie Sélavy

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Double Take: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 April 2010

Venue: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Cinema NX Distribution

Director: J Blakeson

Writer: J Blakeson

Cast: Gemma Aterton, Martin Compston, Eddie Marsan

UK 2009

100 mins

J Blakeson’s feature debut is a taut, low-budget British thriller about two men, Danny and Vic, who kidnap a young woman named Alice. As they wait for the ransom, locked together in a small flat, tension mounts and details emerge about who they are. The relationship between the three characters develops in unexpected directions as they all try to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Below, Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy discuss the film and what it shows about current British filmmaking.

Pamela Jahn: What I liked about the film is that, for what it was, a hostage story, it was pretty tight and well performed. But there were some twists that were beyond plausibility, and I thought it started more strongly than it played out in the end.

Virginie Sélavy: The way that some of the revelations about the characters were brought on showed that the plot was weak. They just felt like a cop-out, like a way out of the plot that Blakeson had built. They weren’t really justified in any way and were quite unconvincing as a result.

PJ: The opening scenes where Danny and Vic set up the kidnapping and take Alice to the flat were really tense and really good. You don’t know the motivations behind Danny’s weird behaviour at first.

VS: That’s true, the beginning is excellent because it’s very sparse, it doesn’t explain anything. The two men are very purposeful and they are brutal without hurting her, which is very unsettling and very effective. You don’t quite understand what’s going on.

PJ: But then I found the first twist laughable. Alice’s reaction wasn’t worked out properly.

VS: I expected the film to be cleverer, but in the end what you have is yet another film that focuses on a female victim who is stripped naked and humiliated, but is not smart enough to get herself out of the situation. Although she is constantly trying things, she doesn’t make anything happen - everything happens outside of her control. That annoyed me, and I know this is partly to do with my own expectations, but I don’t think you can have just another female victim film without having a little bit of a twist, so that she’s more than that.

PJ: Yes, I totally agree, but given the fact that she is under so much pressure I think that at least it’s realistic. I thought her character was convincing in the way that she tries to get out of her situation.

VS: But did you think that she was an interesting female character?

PJ: No.

VS: That’s my point. Danny is probably the most interesting character because he’s manipulative and complex and you can’t quite figure him out, whereas she just reacts to situations. She’s a very passive type of character. I expected more of a battle of wits, which I don’t think you really get.

PJ: What annoyed me more was that it became predictable, that I could actually foresee the end. In terms of the characters, I thought what was interesting is that Danny seems weak at the beginning and he turns out to be quite strong. And even though I didn’t have as much of a problem with Alice as you, I think it’s a bit of a shame that Blakeson did not put more effort into creating her character. He does concentrate on the two guys and their relationship a lot more, but she’s just the victim, she doesn’t have to be anything other than that.

VS: I think the other problem in the film is the way information is revealed.

PJ: It’s quite clumsy.

VS: Yes. I always remember what Hitchcock said about suspense and surprise, and in this film Blakeson went for surprise. If he had given his audience more information about the characters, he would have been able to create much more effective tension by making the audience aware of what is being played out in front of them. That said, the relationship between the two men is better dealt with, there is a more interesting power struggle between them.

PJ: Absolutely. That’s because Blakeson keeps things simple - one location, three characters - it’s a different sort of tension that keeps the film together and makes it enjoyable.

VS: I did find it enjoyable in spite of my reservations. I think for a first feature film with a very low budget, they did well. The kidnapping set-up was a good idea to justify the one location, which is so important to keep the budget down. But the problem I have with it, and in that respect it made me think of Exam, which is also a one-room low-budget British thriller, is that these new directors try to make films that they can sell, and as a result I think that there is something a bit formulaic about them. Ultimately, they are fairly empty films because they don’t really have much to say. They seem to make a film for the sake of it, rather than because they have something to say or show. But maybe this is a step for those first-time directors towards making the film they really want to make - I hope so.

PJ: One of the reasons for this might have to do with the funding. They have to show that they can make a film within a tiny budget that looks good and is saleable and not too controversial.

VS: Yes, the funding is the problem. Of course you have to be realistic when you make your first film, but you have to have a story to tell, not just a narrative device that is a pretext to make a film.

PJ: They may not be empty, but they’re flat. A lot of these films pretend to be interesting but they’re not thought through properly. In both films, there are probably one or two twists too many, which keep the audience going, but are too obvious.

VS: You could have done something more interesting with the power games in this scenario, but Blakeson doesn’t really explore that deeply enough. The film doesn’t tell you anything of substance about the dynamics of power in this triangle, because of all those twists.

PJ: In terms of the performances, I thought Eddie Marsan was the best one. He’s totally convincing as Vic, the older kidnapper, and I can take all the plot twists that involve him because of his performance. I think the performances carry the plot to a certain extent. Whenever the plot weakens, there is still a fantastic quality to the acting and it keeps you interested to the end.

Pamela Jahn and Virginie Sélavy